By Susan Baldani
Teenagers can get so caught up in school, friendships, social media, and everyday responsibilities that they can sometimes forget about the broader world around them. The arrival of summer vacation brings more freedom to explore new interests and is therefore a good time to get them involved in some new and worthwhile opportunities.
One way for teens to do this is through volunteering, which has been shown to increase self-esteem, help them gain understanding of issues impacting their communities, and give them personal satisfaction. To make it more meaningful, encourage them to choose a cause they feel is important.
For example, if your teen loves animals, many animal shelters need people to walk and play with the dogs, clean the cat cages, and provide companionship and love to these homeless pets. Or, if your teen likes being around older people, nursing homes are often looking for volunteers to play games, read, or just spend time with their seniors. Churches and other religious organizations are also always looking for help with fundraisers, serving meals to the poor, and various other outreach activities.
Universities also expect students to have experience with volunteering. New York Time freelance contributor Julie Weed wrote recently that volunteering gives your child an advantage when it comes to college admissions. “Most students who apply to college these days list volunteer experience on their application,” said Paul Seegert, associate director in the admissions office at the University of Washington. “The students who stand out are ones who have taken on leadership roles, shown a long-term commitment to service, or brought innovation or creative solutions to their work.”
Of course, having an edge when it comes to getting into a university is a great additional benefit, but if a teen is only volunteering because it will look good on his or her college application, it won’t be as heartfelt or impactful in their lives. So, be sure your teen picks something he or she is genuinely interested in.
“Volunteering is especially beneficial to low-income teens,” Weed said. “According to a 2007 federal study, disadvantaged teens who volunteer feel empowered and are more likely to become politically engaged and to believe they will graduate from college and make a difference in their communities.”
Volunteering has many other rewards, as well. It can help teens learn about the world outside of their own environment by enabling them to come into contact with people they may not normally interact with, such as those from different backgrounds or cultures. It can even lead to a desire to travel and explore new places.
In addition, it can also help teens improve their social skills and form meaningful friendships based on shared goals and commitments. They can also acquire skills that will serve them well in the future, such as planning, organizing, and customer service.
Volunteering can allow teens to try out different careers and help them decide what they want to do in the future. For example, if they are interested in medicine, they can join a local ambulance squad or volunteer at a hospital to see if it’s something that may be right for them. Or, it may make them realize they need to pick another career, without wasting years and money on an academic path that isn’t right for them.
Volunteering is also something wonderful that families can do together. Working for a common goal is a great way to do something good for your community while strengthening family bonds and making memories. Your children may not remember that trip to an amusement park, but you can bet they’ll remember someone thanking them for providing some much-needed assistance.
Finding places to volunteer in your area is fairly easy since there are so many worthwhile causes out there. While some require a volunteer to be at least 18, many others do not. One site, http://www.volunteermatch.org, can help teens find a cause that’s right for them, like taking part in a fundraiser for Goodwill or tutoring a child at Presbyterian Community Center.
Open up a new world for your teens by encouraging them to volunteer their time to help others. It may turn out to be one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give them.
Written for Roanoke Valley Family Magazine in Virginia